A government shutdown may have been averted over the weekend, but more details are emerging about last-minute budget deals. For example, the protected status of gray wolves has been removed in much of the American West. This marks the first time that Congress has removed an animal from the Endangered Species List.

A provision in the budget deal calls for the removal of gray wolves from the federal Endangered Species List in Idaho and Montana, but not Wyoming. This new policy, which was added to the budget plan by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.), opens the door for commercial wolf hunts in the fall.

The new provision will not remove the wolves from protected status in Wyoming and will not allow wolf hunts in national parks. This is the latest chapter in a long story for wolves, which are seen as an iconic image of the American West but also pose a threat to many Westerners’ way of life.

The gray wolf was hunted to near extinction in the early part of last century, but after being added to the endangered species list, the animal has recovered to a population of more than 1,500.

As the wolf population grew, the wolves began encroaching on ranchland and big game hunting areas. As wolf attacks on cattle and game populations became more prevalent, the chatter to change management procedures for the predators ramped up. This led to wolf management being handed over to the states.

In 2009, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho each submitted plans for new management programs that were approved. All three of the states’ plans included issuing permits to hunt wolves to agreed-upon levels. But by 2010, after successful legal challenges by environmentalists, the animals were once again placed on protected status. The resulting policy was that the federal government essentially put the gray wolf on the endangered species list in Wyoming, but not Montana and Idaho. Wyoming’s policy was under scrutiny from the beginning of this process as it allowed for shooting wolves on sight in certain situations. This led to the question about how a species can be endangered in one state and not another. A federal judge recently said a species could not be federally protected in one place and not another. But with the latest involvement from Congress, the matter is not resolved.

The rider in the congressional agreement directly contradicts a federal judge’s ruling about selectively listing a species based on state boundaries, and according to the New York Times, has raised eyebrows within the environmental community. “Environmental groups said it set an unnerving precedent by letting Congress, rather than a science-based federal agency, remove endangered species protections,” according to that report.

On the other side of the equation are politicians who are increasingly skeptical of federal oversight. Even in Wyoming, where wolves will remain protected by federal authority, the state’s senior U.S. senator, Mike Enzi, applauded the rider. “Ideally, Wyoming wolves should be removed from the endangered species list along with Montana and Idaho. But short of a regional delisting, the next best scenario is ensuring that Wyoming is not disadvantaged in the future and that the favorable court decision is intact,” said Enzi. The court decision Enzi is referring to a prior decision made by U.S. District Court Judge Alan Johnson that supports the initial plan.

So what do you think? Should animals be removed from the endangered species list by Congress instead of the Interior Department? Should these decisions be made as part of the budget process? Do you think an animal can be endangered in one area but not another? Let me know in the comments section below.

Gray wolves off the endangered species list -- sort of
A small part of the new congressional budget will have a big effect on wolf policy in the American West.